Beijing, a symbol of China’s booming economy and rich cultural history, is a remarkable city to visit. As the capital of China and home to more than 20 million residents, Beijing is a bustling metropolis blending the modern and traditional, where rows of gleaming skyscrapers stand just blocks away from intricate, ancient hutong alleyways and residences.
For those of you who have your sights set on visiting this capital gem, for either a short-term trip or a longer time period to study abroad, here’s a basic guide of things to do and places to see to get you started.
If this is your first time in Mainland China, make sure to take care of your visa application a few months in advance. When you arrive, you’ll most likely be struck by the multitude of cultural differences. Beijing is very crowded (goodbye, personal space!), busy and polluted. If you don’t already have at least a conversational grasp of Mandarin, memorizing basic Mandarin phrases beyond the basic “nihao” and “xiexie”—such as how to ask for directions, order food and bargain while shopping—will help you immensely. Beijingholiday.com’s guide and The Essential Mandarin Chinese Phrase Book are good references to start with.
Make sure to carry hand sanitizer and toilet paper in your purse, since many public restrooms don’t provide either. Hand sanitizer is very hard to find in Chinese convenience stores, so pack this before you leave. You’ll have to deal with squatting over toilets in the ground—but they are not as intimidating as they sound and you’ll get used to them. In fact, locals think they are actually more sanitary, since no body contact is involved. Also, whatever you do, do not carry your passport in your purse; keep it in your hotel room or apartment at all times in a safe place. While Beijing is not notorious for pickpockets, your passport is your ticket home and a valuable form of identification.
For getting around the city, buy a transportation card from any subway station. Similar to meter cards at home, you can swipe these on buses, the subway and even taxis. A 10-minute taxi ride will only cost you around 15 yuan, or less than 3 USD, but I encourage taking the subway. Many of Beijing’s greatest attractions are accessible by subway line; just avoid peak rush hour times at 8-9 am and 5-7 pm.
For the Short-Term Tourist
There are more than a handful of famous landmarks that you should visit if you’re only in Beijing for a short period. The Great Wall is a must-see, and is located an hour outside of Beijing. Take the subway to Tiananmen Square, the site of the famous 1989 riots, which is also right next to the imperial palace of the Forbidden City at the city’s center. Other must-sees include the Temple of Heaven, a beautiful complex visited by emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasty,
the Summer Palace UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Wangfujing shopping district and night market and the 2008 Olympics attractions (such as the Bird’s Nest, Water Cube, etc.).
If you have the time, other sights and activities worth scheduling include an afternoon at the 798 Art District for art junkies and a stroll through the ancient hutong alleyways near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square for a taste of the real China. As for the Great Wall, opt for visiting the Mutianyu or Jinshanling section instead of the more famous Badaling. Not only are they less crowded and more beautiful, but you can also ride a toboggan down from the wall at Mutianyu or zipline at Jinshanling.
For the Exchange Student
If you’re studying abroad in Beijing, you’ll have time to not only visit all of Beijing’s famous attractions, but also to explore its best hangout and party joints. As an exchange student, you’ll most likely be living in or near the Wudaokou or university district, where most of Beijing’s universities are clustered. For great local eats, just take a walk down ChenFuLu, where street vendors sell tasty jianbing (egg pancakes). The Bridge is a great place to grab a brunch of bacon and French toast if you’re craving Western-style food and is also a popular study spot. The Bean Tree is another great place to study that isn’t usually too crowded, serving great waffles, desserts and coffee. And if you get tired of studying, check out their selection of free board games with your friends.
For fun nights out, hop on a taxi and head to Sanlitun. Many expats frequent the Sanlitun Mall, a recently built, modern shopping center, for good dining, shopping and movie watching. Next door is the famed Sanlitun bar street, and just another
10 minutes away is Vics, a great club for teens and twenty-somethings that plays familiar Top 50 hits with a loyal expat following. Or if you’re seeking a cultural experience, head to Houhai, a bustling area built around a lake known for its vibrant nightlife at restaurants, bars and cafes.
For more suggestions of great sights and hangouts and extensive restaurant reviews in Beijing, visit www.thebeijinger.com or www.timeoutbeijing.com, the most popular English-language publications for young adults in the city.
Read more of my study abroad experience in Beijing on the Mochi blog for extra insights:
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